Dear MCBC Indigenous Relations Friends,
I have just recently received a sermon note from our good friend Steve Heinrichs of MC Canada Aboriginal Programs in Winnipeg. I asked if could share this with out MCBC folks and he was delighted to. This sermon is a challenge for us to consider when talking about building and sustaining relationships of restoration and reconciliation with our Aboriginal Peoples. Thanks you for your consideration as you read this challenge. In Creator Redeemer Jesus, Brander
Steve Writes:
Right Relationships Rooted in Land…Even Here

On May 18th, 2004, the city council of Eureka, California did something strange – they voted to return 40 acres of land to a local Native tribe. For over thirty years, the Wiyot had been trying to regain control of this land, yet no one would listen. But then everything changed. A group of people not generally known for supporting Native land struggles started to walk alongside the Wiyot… a people whom the Wiyot credit for bringing about the dramatic transformation in their circumstances. Who were they? The evangelicals.

The predominantly white, Christian churches of Eureka California had invited Richard Twiss and his Native Christian organization to come and facilitate some bridge-building between the native and newcomer communities. They thought it would be good to get everyone together, worship with each other, share food, learn a few things. But after three days of meetings, the churches decided to do more than that… they took a collection and gave money to help the tribe purchase land that they had had taken from them long time ago. It wasn’t much money, yet it did buy back one and a half acres…and according to the Wiyot, it was hugely significant, getting the rapt attention of ‘the powers that be.’

It’s a remarkable story, isn’t it? Evangelical churches raising money to fund Native land claims. It’s not a story that you often hear. It’s kind of political, kind of risky. What would lead them to that kind of action? These churches were already doing a lot of good things; they were helping out Native people by running food hampers, doing VBS for the kids in the summer, and so on. So why get involved in that sticky arena of land issues?

Maybe after all these years, they had finally come to learn the story of the place in which they lived? Maybe they didn’t know that the Wiyot had been expelled from their land by settler society, and that their had never been any efforts to repair that injustice? Discovering this history they were just compelled to do something.

Maybe they heard indigenous voices tell them straight up that if reconciliation with indigenous neighbors is ever going to happen, they’re going to have to deal with the land issue at some point. As Desmond Tutu once said, “You can apologize for having stole my pen, but unless you return the pen, you haven’t apologized, and the relationship is still broken.”

Maybe they had rediscovered those prophetic voices in our sacred scriptures that urge a reckoning with land injustice? Prophetic voices like Micah: “Woe to those who covet lands, who hatch plans in the night to dispossess the poor of their homes. God has had enough. Repent, and confront the crime with the spirit of justice and strength, or God will hatch a plan for you!”

I don’t know what it was that made these evangelicals act. But whatever it was…they acted. They raised money to get a chunk of land and that caused a “river of righteousness” to flow.

It’s not a common story. Yet here’s the cool thing. It’s not utterly unique. A few others have done it, and are doing it… even Mennonites.

Have you heard the story of Stoney Knoll? It’s a piece of land near the town of Laird in Saskatchewan. Back in 1876, during the signing of Treaty 6, the Young Chippewayan Cree were “granted” this land – 30 square miles – for a reserve. Then, during the 1880 and 90s, the Young Chip began to face difficult times. Government had ratcheted up their oppression of indigenous peoples following the Riel Resistance, and to make things worse, the life-blood of the native community – the buffalo – was being exterminated by settler society. Facing starvation, the Young Chip decided to leave Stony Knoll in the long search for sustenance. And as they were out looking for food, the government did the unthinkable; without the Band’s consent or surrender, they annexed the land and gave it to settlers… Mennonite and Lutheran settlers.

Almost a hundred years later, as Mennonites were seeking to connect more intentionally with their indigenous neighbors, they were gently told that in order for a true and lasting friendship to take place, land issues would have to be addressed. Many, if not most of the settlers had no idea what had happened. Yet courageously, a group of them decided to engage this matter, offering their prayer and moral support. In 1985 MCC Saskatchewan officially recognized the injustice, and over the past couple of years, Mennonite Churches have been gathering at Stoney Knoll to express their solidarity, and raising money to support the Young Chip’s efforts to get land for their scattered people.

I love this story. What these Mennonites are doing in Saskatchewan is what Jesus was so passionate about – the Jesus who preached that dangerous message of “Good News to the poor and the oppressed… liberation for captives and the sinned-against.” Yet I love this story not simply because it fits with Christ’s gospel, but because it actually lives into the risky covenants that we Mennonites have audaciously signed on to. Did you know that Mennonites have publicly declared – repeatedly – that we will deal with native land injustice?

Back in 1992 – on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ violent non-discovery of Turtle Island – Mennonites, through MCC, said (quote) – “We promise to work for the just and honorable fulfillment of outstanding issues related to land,” that where “we have used false notions of cultural superiority as rationale for forceful takeover in the past, we repent.”

More recently, in 2007, Mennonite Church Canada boldly affirmed the Kairos New Covenant – a document that commits us not only to a fuzzy posture of solidarity with indigenous peoples, but specifically, to advocate for indigenous self-determination (or sovereignty) and the pursuit of concrete land justice.

Wow! That’s radical stuff.

Now what does this all have to do with Grace Mennonite Church?

I’m not sure. I have no “word from the Lord.” But I can see that Grace is on a journey of real relationship with indigenous neighbors. To deepen these relationships (and bring even more of God’s delight to the friendships and work you are doing), I wonder if Grace should engage the local stories, peoples and issues – specifically, to engage the broken history of this particular “home and native land.”

Some of you know what I’m talking about, but for those of you who don’t, let’s reflect on the history of the East Reserve, which Steinbach is a part of.

It was back in 1874, that 453 Mennonite families, about 7000 Mennonites, came to the Manitoba prairies. The Canadian government was – for the most part – quite happy to have us come, because we were good farmers, we were Europeans, we were Christians, and we were dutiful citizens. So happy, that they allotted 185 000 acres to our ancestors in what came to be known as the East Reserve. So happy, that they waived the required three year residency that other settlers had to fulfill in order to obtain patent to the land.

And we all know how the story goes – through real struggle and hard work, the Mennonites prospered in this land. And within a matter of years there were more than 30 small villages in the East Reserve. What we don’t know – what the Mennonite Encyclopedia and other books describing our history don’t mention – is that this promised land that we came to possess…had people living in it before we came along.

There were indigenous families…Cree/metis families in this Canaan. Mennonite scholar, Donovan Giesbrecht, published an article a few years ago in the Journal of Mennonite Studies, that clearly shows that this land was occupied. This is what he says:

When the first contingent of Mennonite immigrants were taken to the East Reserve, a Government lands surveyor named Roger Goulet was with them. Several indigenous peoples came to them and protested, saying that parts of this land actually belonged to them. Goulet noted these Metis claims into the books of the Dominion Lands Office, and he did not give those lands to the Mennonites. But it was to no avail. Before long, the Mennonites settled on those lands.

Of the many indigenous peoples living in this area, at least fifteen protested to the Government, claiming that they lost their lands to the Mennonite settlers. Between 1879 and 1898 over fifty letters and memorandums were written to the Dominion Government concerning Metis rights to several sections on the Mennonite East Reserve including land in Gruenfeld, the very first Mennonite village.

In 1898, after a struggle of more than twenty years with the Department of the Interior, the Métis finally received their answer. Ottawa decided that the Metis claimants could have (quote) “the privilege of selecting 160 acres of available Dominion Lands, and obtaining letters patent for the same on payment therefore at the rate of one dollar an acre.” In other words, if the Métis wanted land, they would have to go somewhere else, and pay for it. After 1898, the Métis voice was no longer heard…at least in public.

Reflecting on this story, I have to ask, where were the Mennonite voices in all this? The Mennonite voices for peace? Why were they silent? We have plenty of Mennonite documents from this period and place, but none mention these matters.

• Were they too overwhelmed with the difficult transition to a ‘new world’ – new language, new peoples, new government, new land – that they were somewhat incapacitated to do something?
• Was it the tumultuous times – those were the days just following the Riel Resistance, and the Manitoba Act which promised 1.4 million acres to be handed over to the Metis…the Canadian government was anxious, and wanted to settle new immigrant groups as quickly as possible on the land… perhaps the rush of colonization prevented some sort of response?
• Or did the Mennonites, like most settlers back then, simply believe that the natives were undeserving of the land – ’cause they didn’t use the land in a ‘civilized’ fashion, ’cause they didn’t farm it like us, they didn’t really own it?
• Or did they simply think the government would handle this…and that since the government gave them this land, then it must have all been above board (and it doesn’t matter what a handful of native discontents think).

Whatever the case may be, the Mennonites were silent…and they settled on Native land.

What are we to do with this story…our story?

I think it’s incumbent upon us to revise a few narratives in the Mennonite Canon. The belief in a nonintrusive Mennonite immigration – of the quiet in the land moving quietly into quiet, uninhabited space – well, that requires re-telling. Like the people of Israel, whose sacred Scriptures tell both the good and the bad of their journey, we’ve got to courageously do the same. We shouldn’t glorify our grandmothers and grandfathers (or demonize them). We need to tell the truth, and allow that truth to set us free.

Di Brandt, is one of the courageous Mennonites who has done that. Brandt is a poet at the University of Brandon, and in a recent book she wrote:
“It is impossible for me to write the land. This land that I love, this wide, wide prairie, this horizon, this sky, this great blue overhead, big enough to contain every dream, every longing. How I love you, how you keep me alive…[and yet this land that I love… you are] stolen land, Metis land, Cree land, buffalo land. When did I first understand this, the dark underside of property, colonization, ownership, the shady dealings that brought us Mennonites here, to this earthly paradise?”

I really believe Jesus’ is right. If we tell the truth, the truth will set us free. Set us free to see the world more clearly; and set us free to embrace God’s just and life-giving ways. And what may those ways be?

Let me cast some dreamy ‘gospel’ pearls before you…ways that the Mennonite community in the East Reserve could possibly repair the damage of the past. They may seem crazy, they probably are…but then again, so are many of the practices suggested in the Bible, be it Leviticus’ Jubilee command for land redistribution, or the early church’s call to hold all property in common.

To live the gospel truth in this place… what if:
• What if Grace Mennonite Church put up a sign on this property which recognized that we are in host territory, that indigenous people did live here, and that this is now Treaty 1 Territory? Imagine what that might do for your relationships with indigenous peoples. “Grace Mennonite Church – Learning to live faithfully on Indigenous Lands.”
• Or what if Grace Mennonite got a group together that could partner with an Indigenous organization to faithfully re-map the East Reserve… recording the indigenous place names of this land, its streams and creeks, ancient villages, sacred sights and medicine places. Renaming them with public signs, renaming them on our maps. There are native groups that are trying to do this around Canada, and some Christians are partnering with them. Why not here? Imagine what that would do for us, for our souls, if we helped re-inscribe Native Presence into this place? If we should so honor and respect the history of this place?
• What if, in partnership with Mennonite Church Manitoba and Mennonite Church Canada, Grace Mennonite raised money to purchase a piece of land… or simply gave a piece of our land back to the original peoples? Imagine what God could do with something like that?
• Finally, what if Mennonites gave a portion of their property tax money, and gave it to an indigenous organization that’s trying to help native peoples reconnect with their lands – a tangible symbol that, “Yes, we really do live on Native land.” Or if that’s too controversial, maybe a “first-fruits” offering over and above.

Yes, this all sounds crazy…unthinkable. But perhaps God is inviting us to contemplate such… perhaps even do such. God’s done it before:

• One of my favorite stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, is the one about Yahweh asking the prophet Jeremiah to cash in his RRSP’s in order to buy a piece of land just outside of Jerusalem…land that was being bombed and bombarded by Babylon. Everyone – all the church folk – thought it was nuts, totally imprudent, a waste of money. But Jeremiah knew that God wanted him to risk to honor God’s promise of radical faithfulness and covenant justice. So with knees shaking, and sweaty armpits, he bought the land. I think we need a few Jeremiah’s in our churches. I think we need a few churches like Jeremiah.

Randy Woodley, a Christian of the Keetowah people has said, “At some point, Native and non-native relationships must go “beyond ‘Getting Along,’ and include actual restitution for past injustices that still impact present relationship… restitution in the form of monetary payment, services or the return of lands.” Restitution is truth-telling. Restitution brings healing. Restitution redistributes God’s gifts. Restitution acknowledges that Native peoples have deep, spiritual connections to the land of their mothers and fathers. And restitution demonstrates that this relationship is really, really important… so important that we are willing to put costly action, to words… costly discipleship, to our faith.

Is this challenging? Yes. There’s no way around it. As the great Jewish thinker and civil rights activist, Abraham Heschel said, What else should we expect… “God is a challenge, an incessant demand. God is compassion, but not compromise.” But if we receive the challenge, our cruciform God will grant us the creative tenacity to live it out. Grace can do this.